A few weeks ago, I was reminded of a time in my childhood when I allowed three simple words to develop a kind of power that, when strung together in a sentence, would often elicit an almost instinctive response from me. I suppose it stems from the way those three words allowed my mom to appear as if she had power over—well, everything. After all, she was my mom. Moms have power and any kid quickly learns that control is innately a mom thing. The three words are, “Not right now.” The words themselves are so vague and I found that frustrating. It’s not a firm no, but it’s also not maybe. Nor did it necessarily mean “not at this moment, but definitely later” either. It’s that murky grey area in between. As a child, that was tough, so when mom would offer that as her decision, I would methodically plot a strategy to change her answer into something more affirming or at least more definitive, although that would sometimes backfire, resulting in the equally vague but not quite as dreaded, “We’ll see.” But at least with “we’ll see,” I felt like I had something to work with.
I’m not exactly sure why, but there is one example of the “not right now” decision that stands out in my mind more than most. It was during the earlier part of my childhood when we lived in a very modest bungalow on a homey, gravel road in that semi-undefined, geographical anomaly we used to call “the agri-burbs,” a hybrid residential mix that arose when suburban sprawl began to creep into farm country. There was very little traffic and even that usually belonged to the families that lived there or to relatives or friends visiting. We were fortunate to not have to abide by many of the safety rules that governed street-adjacent playtime for our peers living in more populated areas with paved and heavier trafficked avenues. When I was around 8, they first started excavating the giant, vacant field across the road. The standard edicts of societal development, circa 1970, seemingly mandated that anything vacant must be converted, often for commercial purposes, a process that would soon transform that long-devoid land into Michigan’s largest shopping mall, at least the largest at that time. During the late afternoons and on weekends, my cohorts and I would venture over to the massive tract to become hearty adventurers, exploring for a bounty of treasures that would surely be missed by anyone else because they lacked the ability to see how a small gray rock was, in our minds, actually a remnant from a galactic alien spacecraft; or the wherewithal to believe that a hardened clod of dirt had once inhabited the surface of planet Zordox. We still had to ask for parental approval to go on our exploratory odysseys, if only because protocol applies even to budding 8 year-old archaeologists. I couldn’t even begin to count the numerous violations we must have committed by making that field our makeshift playground, as evidenced by the “NO TRESPASSING” signs placed at every corner of the site. But we were clever in our attempts to maneuver around that little obstacle by telling our mothers that we had talked to the foreman and had his permission. This was, of course, not even remotely true. Had they known the truth, the punishment would have been so severe that I would likely still be grounded for life to this day.
One day, my best friend Billy claimed to have knowledge of a rather extraordinary discovery at the site. He couldn’t elaborate on what it was, but I
could tell it was huge. Or so it seemed. We had to go over and investigate. “Mom, can I go play with Billy and Denny in the field?” Mom’s standard response hadusually been, “Yes, but only for a half hour and be very careful!” But this time, I got those three dreaded words. “Not right now.” I whined—not so much that it would annoy her, but just enough for her to sense my objection. She repeated her answer but this time with a bit more conviction. “I said not right now. But we’ll see.” Wait. I got a “we’ll see” as a side dish to my “not right now.” I asked for an explanation, something I couldn’t resist—a last-ditch attempt to change her mind. It was also a testament to my stubborn and obstinate nature, a characteristic she said would suit me well if I were to consider a career as an attorney when I got older. She rebutted in a way that told me I was approaching my limit. “We’ll see. Take it or leave it. It’s better than no. At least it’s something.” I would always remember the part about it being something.
Last week, I presented a very effective and strong pitch to the community relations team of a local business. I had learned that the company was interested in becoming more
philanthropically involved in the community, and my research concluded that the company would be a good fit for us and vice versa. My objective was to have them include Colorado Cancer Research Program (CCRP) as one of the organizations they would support. I was on fire. Best presentation ever. The three members of the team seemed quite impressed and I even felt a strong synergy among us. As I finished, I chuckled because of how mom, who was always known for her idioms of wisdom and bits of sage advice relating to important situations like this, would have said, “Did you prepare well? Did you do your absolute best? Because if you did, the outcome doesn’t matter.” Yes, mom. I did my best.
Whether or not any of us non-profit types want to admit it, we are in the business of sales. The CEO sells his or her vision to the board; fundraisers sell the mission to donors and foundations. Granted, we are not selling a product or a service in the traditional sense, but we are most certainly trying to persuade prospective donors to part with their money, or volunteers to part with their valuable time. And we feel justified, even noble in our efforts because we do it for the greater good. This time around, I felt like I had just hit a very noble home run with my pitch.
The day I got the call regarding their decision was one of those glorious days when the sunshine and warm temps make it feel as if nothing can go wrong. It was Lisa, the gal I most connected with during my presentation. “Hi, Dave. Wow, your presentation was incredible and we were so impressed with the work CCRP does.” So far, there was nothing that would lead me to sense a rejection was coming. She continued, “But one of our execs is very involved with an organization that helps patients struggling with health issues, including cancer, and I wasn’t aware that we’re sponsoring an event for them in a few months. So we would really like to talk again after we’re finished with that event. But not right now. I’m so sorry.”
And there they were. Those three dreaded words. Not. Right. Now. I’m sure I even heard it in the voice of my mother. Lisa was almost apologetic in her delivery. For a moment or two, I actually felt bad for her. But I began to recall those times I’d be so annoyed hearing my mom say, “Not right now.” I pondered what I might have done differently that could have resulted in a different outcome. Was I too aggressive? Too chatty? Did I not put enough focus on this or that? What did I do wrong? And after focusing on “I” and “me” for a few minutes, something hit me. While I made a fine presentation, this pitch for which I had been praising myself so self-servingly wasn’t about me. If that’s what was most important in the moment, then I had lost all sense of what really mattered. Because when all is said and done, it was about cancer. It was about the incredible breakthroughs we had realized over the past year and how they were benefiting our patients. It was about increasing funding so we could continue to advance our research. It was about achieving the ultimate goal of finding a cure, a goal to which we are closer than at any other time in history. And, most of all, it was about the patients we serve— people engaged in the fight of their lives. But it certainly was NOT about me.
So instead of scrutinizing how well I delivered my pitch, my focus shifted to whether or not I delivered the right message. Was the need for increased funding adequately conveyed? Was the objective and result of any funding they would offer clearly communicated? Did they believe in the sincerity of our mission? Securing a potentially high-dollar corporate partner was important, but not because of my personal satisfaction in closing a lucrative deal. These three individuals had taken the time to listen to what I had to say because their employer is philanthropically involved in all sorts of causes— one that happens to be cancer. Hearing them say “not right now” didn’t mean I had failed, nor did it mean they weren’t interested. It simply meant “not right now.”
This morning, I received a call from another member of that company’s decision-making team. He thanked me for such a compelling and thorough presentation, after which he informed me that they wanted to make a small commitment in good faith and would be purchasing a foursome for our upcoming golf tournament. Granted, it wasn’t the desired outcome I had originally sought. But, as my mom used to say, at least it was something. It was a great first step.
I believe that for every ten companies whose answer is “not right now,” there will be one whose answer is yes. And if not a firm commitment, I’ll be fine with “We’ll see.” Because I can work with that. It’s something, and I can turn something into something better.
And I can do it right now.
If you’re interested in a possible partnership with Colorado Cancer Research Program (CCRP), making a donation or just finding out more information, please contact Dave at 720.475.5740. You can make an online donation here.